Monday, January 4, 2010

"Orphan" scares up some fun and a deliciously twisted twist

Orphan (2009) 
123 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

No one really saw 2007's sleeper "Joshua" about a malevolent, Tchaikovsky-playing 9-year-old boy dead set on familial havoc, so you might not know that this is Vera Farmiga's second role as a psycho child's affected mother. This time in "Orphan," she adopts a malevolent, Tchaikovsky-playing 9-year-old girl dead set on familial havoc. 

An intensely grotesque, David Cronenbergian stillborn pregnancy of bloody ickiness starts things out, as wife-mother Kate (Farmiga)—a former Yale piano teacher and recovering alcoholic—tries putting the grievous memory behind her. Then the “orphan” in question, bad seed Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), is taken in by the Colemans (Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard's John). Bright, mature, well-mannered, oh, and psychotically deranged, the Little Russian Bo-Peep is just a little “different” from the other children, and could make Damien Thorne wet his pants with her dead stare. All she's missing is the triple-6 birthmark, but she's got ribbons around her neck and wrists instead. She wastes no time putting an injured pigeon out of its misery with a rock, trying to wipe out the oldest son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), who sees right through Esther, and manipulating the Colemans' deaf little girl Max (newcomer Aryana Engineer) to her insidious advantage. There sure Hell is something wrong with Esther! 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who did the fun, bloody, and aesthetically artful "House of Wax" remake) gives this pretty scary trashploitation flick an elegant look and the excellent cast classes it up, with a prickly John Ottman music score and a smart, devilish script by David Johnson and Alex Mace that lends a little dark humor to its violence and suspense. Scares come out on the off beats, although we could have done without the overload of times where the camera creeps in on a fridge door or a mirror, closing in to reveal...nothing, all for a self-aware “gotcha!” 

"Orphan" builds, slowly but surely, and gives shades to the well-developed relationship between Kate and John, helped by the painfully believable performances of Farmiga and Sarsgaard (although his character is a bit too understanding and dense). Even their children, Bennett and Engineer, are natural performers for their ages. Obviously, much merit must go to the absolutely chilling performance of 12-year-old Fuhrman as the sinister Esther, who can change a superficially charming smile into a piercing glower. This girl makes Macaulay Culkin's Henry from "The Good Son" look like Shirley Temple: Fuhrman's such a committed little actress and good at playing bad that you just want to ring Esther's neck. Listening to her sing Otis Redding's “Glory of Love” in a choir-girl soprano is more chilling than the inscrutably sleazy-sexual scene of a vampy Esther all dolled up to seduce a drunken John (is this "Poison Ivy"?). "Orphan" is an admittedly familiar "Bad Seed"-type formula but this is an unsettling, teasingly entertaining picture on its own that's worth the fun getting there. 

Oh, and there is a secret about Esther hinted in the film's trailers and poster art, and if you think you can guess it, guess again. Definitely not seen coming, however unbelievably original and jaw-droppingly nutso it is, the Freudian twist works. Movies like "Orphan" don't really need to outstretch themselves past their practical use (ideally, they should be 90 minutes, tops), but this one goes that route, and the protracted but tense, violent to-the-death climax with an applause-worthy “Die!” one-liner just proves that Esther has as many lives as Chucky the Killer Doll. Per the norm, a film this shameless about its material involving children in peril (or children pointing a gun at another's head) would be exploitative or disturbing, but it's treated with more psychological depth and intelligence than most. 

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